Tucked somehow within his madhouse autumns as the estimable 11th-year Stanford football coach, Shaw got to observe in real time both Texas A&M 74, LSU 72, in seven overtimes, in 2018, and Illinois 20, Penn State 18, in nine overtimes, on Saturday. The former left him wowing but wondering, the latter took him from seated to standing.
All of it left him thinking because, for one thing, he’s the chairman of the NCAA Football Rules Committee, which in March pondered again the effects of LSU-Texas A&M and chose the format of Illinois-Penn State. The first two overtimes still bring alternating possessions from the 25-yard line, as is familiar since 1996, but from there, it’s all alternating two-point conversion attempts.
Soon enough, the big old theater in State College, Pa., managed to stage 10 straight failed two-point attempts, from the third overtime through the seventh, and guess what: That wrought some grousing.
What’s the best way to solve those games that can’t seem to solve themselves? Or, maybe: What’s the least worst way? The runaway king-and-queen of all sports on the Earth, soccer, went to penalty shootouts around 1970, and that concept has spent the past half-century withstanding a bumpy ride across the rapids of global grumbling.
Nobody likes it while everybody continues it, because, Hey, got a better plan?
“I love the soccer shootout, but it does take out the rest of the team,” Shaw said Wednesday in a phone interview. He said, “For us, our shootout still involves the offense and the defense. It still involves the majority of players. Everybody has an opportunity to score and to stop a score, with your team. It’s shorter. It’s safer.”
The NFL has squeezed its overtime period from 15 minutes to 10, bumming out some. Those games still can end in a tie, unlike with college football, which spent its first 126 years allowing ties, which would bum out everyone.
Those were, of course, weaker times.
On Nov. 24, 2018, Shaw had coached Stanford in a 49-42 win over UCLA at the Rose Bowl, then had jetted home and flipped his way to the goings-on in College Station, Tex. It became an impromptu family occasion because, he said, “For a football family, sometimes it’s fun to have a game where you don’t have anything riding on it, where you don’t have to root from the top of your lungs and the bottom of your heart.”
It waged on and on, of course, well past the moment late in the fourth quarter when LSU players prematurely doused Coach Ed Orgeron with Gatorade (perhaps a karmic payback for 2002, when Nick Saban’s LSU won after Kentucky players prematurely doused Coach Guy Morriss with Gatorade). The teams had finished regulation with a combined 147 offensive plays; they would finish seven overtimes from 25-yard lines by tacking on a whopping 50 more.
“My first thought was, amazing game,” Shaw said. “I also kept saying: ‘Wow, there’s another guy who got hurt. There’s another guy who’s cramping. There’s another guy being helped off the field.’ This is exciting, but it’s not good.”
Come 2019, the committee analyzed this and provided a shortener: Two-point conversions would become the only thing left to do from the fifth overtime on. Come 2021, the committee acted again, moving the two-point solution from the fifth overtime to the third. “The biggest issue obviously,” Shaw said, “was the number of plays. But we also loved the college format. We didn’t want to do the NFL format.” On came the idea of what he calls “this quote-unquote ‘two-point shootout.’”
Now that the new concept had its signature extreme game Saturday, winning coach Bret Bielema of Illinois saw it from the spectator vein.
“You know, we practice it a little bit, but [there’s] nothing really like the actual of, ‘Hey, everything became a two-point play,’ ” Bielema said. “It really comes on you quick.” He reached into his past at Wisconsin (2006-12), found an overtime game against Penn State and said, “But it was the old way, and it just kind of seemed to drag on and on [even as, upon review, it went one overtime]. This, I can kind of see why the fans, we want to make the fans happy, right? It’s a fan-generated world we’re living in. I’ve got to believe those two-point plays, it was a lot of fun for the fans. It was a lot of fun for us.”
It was, of course, a lot of fun for the fans and not a lot of fun for the fans, depending on which fans you encountered in person or the wilds of Twitter.
“I’ll say this,” Shaw said. “Being on the rules committee, there’s no consensus on anything. There’s never going to be 100 percent agreement of any rule.”
On a Stanford bye week, Shaw tuned in out of his longtime friendships with Bielema and Penn State Coach James Franklin, and said, “For us, what we tried to accomplish, it was good to see it in a fruition where both teams had ample opportunities.” He said, “I believe it will prove exceedingly rare,” especially as coaches might go for two sooner in games. “Our thoughts wouldn’t anticipate more than four overtimes, but you never know how things go. Hopefully this adds excitement and a measure of safety to finding a winner.”
“Yeah,” Franklin said after the game, “I mean, obviously, I think the model was to limit these type of games, to try to end it, and I don’t know if, obviously, this is a good representation of that, because it didn’t do that today.”
There’s this, however: LSU-Texas A&M took 4 hours 53 minutes to complete. Illinois-Penn State took 4:10. The pillars had gone from College Station to State College and from extreme to extreme, but the latter game did feature two more overtimes yet 43 fewer minutes and 46 fewer plays, which was rather the point.